Fantastic History #54: Buddy Cops in Speculative Fiction by Dan Stout

You got Elves in my Mystery!

Speculative fiction and mystery have long lived side-by-side. The earliest incarnations of the mystery genre were heavy with speculative elements, a trend found in works such as Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue or Hodgson’s Carnacki stories.

In recent years the blending of mystery and fantasy has grown more common, especially after the rise in popularity of the urban fantasy and paranormal romance subcategories. Not long ago a story that brought fantasy into a modern setting or that had equal parts romance and magic would have fallen between the genre cracks. Today they are flourishing, with readerships devoted to the exciting new work being done in these subgenres.

My personal obsession with the blend of mystery and speculative fiction was triggered by late 90s TSR novels such as Murder in Tarsis, whose covers promised a mix of dungeons and dragons and detectives. I admit that I never actually picked up any of those novels, but the idea of seeing how a detective would go about their business in a different time or world was fascinating. They felt like the Cadfael mysteries, which were set in 12th century England, but with the addition of magic and dragons. And really, what’s cooler than that?

Buddy Cop Defined

A very specific kind of crime narrative, Buddy Cop stories are a variation on the “odd couple” theme, a classic take on the traditional relationship story. And these go way back, appearing at least a few thousand years ago, in the epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is the hero of the saga, but he starts off as an oppressive king. In fact, he’s so reprehensible that the gods decide to ground him in reality by pairing him with Enkidu, a hair-covered “wild man”. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are diametric opposites. Enkidu is connected to nature and has empathy for the oppressed, which contrasts with Gilgamesh’s entitled elitism. Together, they each make the other a better person.

Similar friendships are depicted in everything from the Iliad to the TV incarnations of Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. The obvious step from these narratives to the Buddy Cop is the addition of a crime to solve.
But when modern readers talk about “buddy cop,” stories, they’re not talking about two friends who solve crimes, like Holmes and Watson or Nancy Drew and Bess. They’re usually talking about the pairings of misfits who don’t particularly want to be joined at the hip, but find a way to get along.

So for our purposes, we can define Buddy Cop stories as relationship stories focused on a crime, with a pair of prickly characters struggling to get along.

This relationship can be found in novels as diverse as Caves of Steel and A Murder of Mages, and films such as Alien Nation, Men in Black, and The Last Action Hero.

Braided Roses

So now that we’ve got a good definition of a Buddy Cop story, how do we explore that relationship? One of my favorite tricks for writing relationships is the “braided roses” technique. (I’ve heard it taught by several different people, though I first heard it from Dave Farland.)

The crux of this technique is to consider each of the two characters as a rose. Each beautiful in their own way, both characters also has their personal set of thorns that make it difficult to get close to them. At first, these two roses seem like they could never be together, but as you line them up, you’ll find that they weave together, avoiding each other’s thorns, and that the end result is far more beautiful than either one alone. But the real power of this metaphor is that the thorns don’t go away. Instead, the two characters learn to coexist, and to function better together than they ever could have alone.

This works for any kind of relationship, whether that’s romantic or procedural. And Buddy Cop stories work because of this universality. On the macro level, they can explore a multitude of conflicts, and use the character confrontations, investigation, and elements of speculative wonder to dive into any societal disquiet imaginable. At the same time, they allow the storyteller to zoom in and examine the two investigators as people, highlighting both how they are different and how they are more alike than they might realize.

Learn how to tie two characters together while also drawing from multiple genres, and you’ll have a powerful tool at your disposal. From the saga of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to today, the idea of pairing a socially polished figure with a loose cannon (Lethal Weapon) or a street-savvy pro with a newcomer to town (Rush Hour/Alien Nation), or even teaming a cranky mentor with a fresh-faced kid (Men in Black) has been a go-to for relationship stories throughout the ages.


Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes noir with a twist of magic and a disco chaser. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Intergalactic Medicine Show. He is the author of The Carter Archives, a series of noir fantasy novels from DAW Books. To say hello, visit him at his website.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.